Sample 3: On The United States Information Agency

November 29, 2018

In 1955, conservative filmmaker Eugene W. Castle published a pamphlet on what he believed to be the wasted dollars in American propaganda services. Like many on the American right, Castle feared the United States was succumbing to "world government" and the power of the United Nations.[1] As Castle surmised:

America has accepted the role, and the fearful dangers, of world power. She has subordinated her foreign policy to the United Nations. Gradually but surely we have been drawn into a net of foreign commitments and responsibilities which have permanently ended our isolation.[2]

Castle reserved particular animus for the United States Information Agency. The USIA staffed overseas libraries and provided educational films to areas in danger of Communist subversion. While Castle was certainly no friend to the communists, he found the USIA to be a bloated, expensive, and underperforming organization. Of particular concern to Castle was the film making arm of the USIA:

IF UNCLE SAM ever should make up his mind to apply the meat-axe to some of the encrusted barnacles which cling to the United States Information Agency, he would not have to search far for a target. A logical starting point would be the International Motion Picture Service, which has plunged Uncle Sam headlong into the movie business, producing propaganda films for use abroad. . .

To date, about $100,000,000 has been poured down the Government's movie-making drainpipe. Uncle Sam has purchased some 6,700 sound projectors, each costing about $400, and a fleet of 355 mobile film units, costing over $6,000 each. Total investment in equipment alone exceeds $5,000,000.[3]

Castle's solution was to cut expenditures on foreign "propaganda" drastically and return to a simplified platform of strict policymaking. He favored a form of isolationism, in which the United States would involve itself internationally but withdraw from any notion of "world government." As he argued:

We shall make little progress in overcoming the dangerously bad overseas climate of public opinion toward America until we restore the Department of State to its proper place in our American government, as the maker and interpreter of foreign policy. . . (156)

The tragedy of the situation is that what ought to be done is clearly obvious. We are the victims of our own over-organization. We have erected a much too costly and complicated super-structure to do a job which can be done with vastly greater effectiveness by a relatively simple and inexpensive agency administered from within the Department of State.[4] (157)

On February 12, Patricia Pratt [5]  sent ER a copy of Castle's article. In her letter, Pratt described the article as "disturbing." "I am wondering how accurate Mr. Castle's analysis is of our so-called "giveaway" programs," she wrote, "and on the basis of your vast experience throughout the world, whether you, too, feel we've lost a lot of friends abroad, because of such programs."[6]

Roughly a week later, ER responded.

221: Eleanor Roosevelt to Patricia Pratt

21 February 1955


Dear Miss Pratt:

            One would expect an article in the “Mercury” such as that of Mr. Castle.[7] His writing is in line with a meeting held in Chicago not long ago by Senator McCarthy’s groups.[8]

            Some of the things Mr. Castle says we could take to heart. We do not always plan carefully enough and our administration is not always tight enough, but, for instance, his criticism of films is not altogether correct. The official films about America life that are shown in US Information Centers are not all propaganda. They are the only films that portray life as it is. You and I know very well that American films do not do that and for a long time European ideas of American life were beclouded because they were deluged by American films and they believed the Westerns and even less desirable films presented the ordinary daily life of the US.

            It is true that when one nation is so well off that others have to come for help surface irritations will appear, and they do appear. However, anyone with goodwill meets goodwill in any country in the world.

            The Mercury article is so full of half truths, clear misstatement and venom that I think it is utterly worthless even where it does attack validly certain things that I think could be corrected or improved.

                                                            Very sincerely yours,



[1] For more on fears of world government and ER's response to, see Documents 11, 13, and 28-30. 

[2] Eugene W. Castle, "Billions, Blunders, and Baloney," American Mercury (March 1955), 146.

[3] Ibid., 150-151.

[4] Ibid., 156-157.

[5] Pratt had written ER a few times before. She most commonly asked ER her opinion on reports of communist espionage. At least two of the articles asked ER if it was true that communists had the "run of the White House" during the New Deal. (Pratt to ER, 2 December 1953. AERP.FDRL; Pratt to ER, 20 March 1954, AERP.FDRL.)

[6] Pratt to ER, 12 February 1955. AERP.FDRL.

[7] The American Mercury began in the 1920s as a cultural and political magazine edited by public intellectual H.L. Mencken (1880-1956). By the 1950s, Mercury took a hard right turn and by the end of the decade drifted into hard anti-Semitism.  Russell Maguire, a wealthy New York industrialist who purchased Mercury in the early fifties, frequently argued that the "anti-Christ forces" or "Forces of Darkness," which included the United Nations, Red China, and Israel "planned revolution" to destroy American life. By 1957, Maguire hired George Lincoln Rockwell as a frequent contributor. Rockwell went on to found the American Nazi Party in 1959. (Russell Maguire, "In the Mercury's Opinion: 1957 Year of Decision," American Mercury (January 1957), 97; Stephen P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 37; George Kellman, "Anti-Jewish Agitation," The American Jewish Yearbook (vol. 59), 1958, 109; George H. Nash, "Forgotten Godfathers: Premature Jewish Conservatives and the Rise of 'National Review,'" American Jewish History Vol. 87 No. 2/3 (September 1999), 127.

[8] On February 12, 1955, Robert E. Wood (1879-1969), a former military officer and business executive who formed the conservative action group "For America," invited Utah Governor J. Bracken Lee, Senator Joe McCarthy, Nevada Senator Everett M. Dirksen, and congressional staffer Thomas McNeice to a daylong seminar in Chicago to celebrate Lincoln's birthday. While the speakers differed in subject matter, a few of them did vocally oppose "foreign giveaways" and criticized President Eisenhower for abandoning China to the communists. Lee even suggested conservative Republicans form their own party if Eisenhower continued his "liberal trend." ("Mention of Third Party Brings Cheers at Meeting of Right-Wing Republicans," WP (13 February 1955), A4; Robert Howard, "G.O.P. Rallies Hear Leaders Hail Lincoln," Chicago Daily Tribune (13 February 1955), 1.)